“The world will never be the same again” is a sentence I’ve heard a great deal lately. Within a few weeks of confinement, people were predicting a reversal of urbanization and the death of the great metropolis. And after a few successful Zoom meetings, workers were hailing the end of the workplace. But before you swap your city townhouse for a country palace, I would urge some caution.
For as long as I can remember, the ideal of working from home (‘WFH’) was enchanting and full of hope. Workers believed it would lead to better work/life balance, greater productivity and improved job satisfaction. But their employers pushed back, fearing they would lose control of their staff.
In the end this was mostly a theoretical debate as few had any real experience with WFH. This changed the day the WHO declared Covid19 a pandemic and the world was forced to try WFH at scale. Now after 75 days of actually doing it, most of us have a better understanding of what it actually implies.
As it turns out, WFH hasn’t been as problematic as employers feared. Thanks to virtual private networks (VPNs), video calling platforms, email and mobiles, business activity has continued. Indeed the CEOs of our forty portfolio companies have all told me their workforce has been effective during the lockdown and some of them are enjoying improved margins as office costs are reduced or stripped away entirely. No wonder then that Twitter has announced it will support WFH on a permanent basis.
Indeed the Governments of the UK, France and Germany are also now considering enshrining the right to work from home into law. As well as reducing the risk of a second wave of Coronavirus infections, the policy could help prevent a resurgence of air pollution - which has dropped markedly during the pandemic.
However it is important to recognise that the pandemic has been an exceptional event. There has been a vast collective effort by employees to stay productive and meet their deadlines. And with staff confined to their homes and restaurants closed, there have been few distractions.
More importantly, after 75 days of lockdown workers are beginning to discover that the dream of WFH isn’t quite as rosy as they thought, it might actually have an ugly side. Once the novelty of not having to commute passed, many of us have found WFH extremely isolating. Humans are social creatures and social connections underpin our working lives. For many people, these social connections become the fabric of their private lives too. Having participated in umpteen Zoom calls, it is clearly no replacement for the casual conversation, intimate lunches and after-work drinks of office life.
When you remove these social interactions from work, it becomes highly transactional. And without regular feedback from managers and colleagues, it becomes harder for workers to understand the value of their contribution. Anxiety can start to creep in as staff question their fulfillment from their role or the certainty of their employment. Indeed studies have shown that remote workers are more likely to report high stress levels than office workers.
With the lines between the workplace and home life blurred, there has also been a complete invasion of our private lives. The entire day, and for many the evenings and weekends too, is seemingly now up for grabs by the employer. Not only is this unhealthy but it will also be impacting our relationships and families.
For those with career aspirations, it is also clear that one needs to be close to the power zone to succeed. While video calls might prevent staff fading into complete irrelevance, the adage of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ continues to apply. Unless you are in the room and regularly seen by management then you won’t rise up the ranks.
The lockdown has certainly given employers more confidence in flexible working and there is no doubt that WFH is here to stay in some shape or form. But with the ugly side of remote working becoming increasingly apparent for workers, many workers will now be wishing for a swift return to office life. And those that sell their townhouse may soon discover they have an even more tedious commute than before.